“The middle years of the Uncivil Wars can roughly be described as a series of conflicts fought to determine peace terms. The tragedy of those years, in retrospective, can be said that while the overwhelming majority of them desired peace no two Calernian powers could agree on what exactly the terms of it should be – and so to war they all went, convinced every step of the way that the others were at fault for it.”
– Extract from the personal memoirs of Lady Aisha Bishara
The third volley did not work better than those before it.
The spears of flame rose into the sky like quarrels loosed, before the guiding sorceries of the legion mages who’d performed the ritual pulled them down. The arc was sudden but graceful, the crackling fire in red and gold tearing straight through the five largest apparitions the Dominion had sent forward. Earth and snow dispersed at the explosion of heat and light, the grounds beneath what had been the shape of strange creatures scorched through a vaporized layer of a frost. There were about a hundred of the damned things, General Abigail thought, but it wouldn’t have been too bad if a ritual volley actually put the abominations downs. Instead she winced as she watched the flames of her mages disperse in turn, leaving behind only small droplets of eldritch power hovering in the air. A heartbeat later the ground beneath the droplets began breaking up and the creatures that’d been broken began reforming.
“It’s not getting any slower, ma’am,” Krolem said.
“I can see that, thank you,” she acidly replied.
Fuck. At this rate the entire web of traps the army’s sappers had worn themselves to the bone digging during nights and hiding before dawn came would be trampled into irrelevance by some strange godsdamned Levantine magic. She squinted at the creatures again, noting how the massive manticore in the lead acted like it was actually hungry. That had to be blasphemous, right? It was all looking a little too much like necromancy, and you weren’t supposed to do that if you were on the side of a crusade these people were on.
“I’m not arguing the House Insurgent is right, mind you,” she muttered. “But this needs looking at, is all I’m saying.”
“Ma’am?” Krolem asked, sounding confused.
Had he been talking? Abigail had no idea, but now was not the time to look like she was losing it in front of the troops. The Black Queen’s barn-burning oration at Sarcella had riled them up like young dockworkers who’d just gotten their first pay. If they thought she was the weak link in this army, Abigail thought with a sudden urge to grimace, they were going to tear her apart. Possibly literally given the amount of orcs there were in the ranks. Look calm, Abigail, she told herself. It’s all under control.
“Quite right, Krolem,” she slowly said. “Spot on. On that note, I need you to request a deployment order from Marshal Juniper.”
She sent him off after a quick elaboration, fairly sure the Hellhound would refuse her request and so in the after-battle reports she’d have an excuse for her failure to perform. That it would put her straight at odds with the Marshal of Callow would be even better, she giddily thought. Marshal Juniper might even demote her, or drum her out of the army.
A girl could dream, couldn’t she?
Forward, Akil Tanja had ordered.
The Lord of Malaga was no fool, to send his binders forward unprotected, but neither would he spare them contribution. After Lady Aquiline had requested the deployment of his finest war-sorcerers to clear the approach of traps, he’d immediately sent for his son. Razin was in need of deeds to redeem himself, if he was to remain the heir to Malaga, and opportunity would arise soon enough. For that purpose Akil had ordered the boy to gather captains enough for two thousand warriors, all bearing shields, and appointed him to command before sending him to reinforce the binders. They would need that protection soon enough, the Lord of Malaga knew, for the bound spirits that had been sent forth were reaching the end of their leash. No other power of Levant had made as deep study of the arts of binding like the Grim Binder’s line, and though Malaga was hardly the only city to send binders to war for the other families such a thing was rare and always in small numbers. That had obscured some of the limitations of their craft, which would become clear very soon if Akil was not careful with his orders.
The binding of a soul or spirit was done with one’s own blood mixed with the ancient flower-dye, tattooed on one’s skin with needles of barrow-bone. The patterns of these bindings had been refined by Akil’s ancestors, to require less breadth and shackle the bound more tightly – and cease sickening the blood of those who used them recklessly. The sharing of those secrets with those who entered the service of the Tanja was why so many practitioners came to Malaga, with the finest among them allowed to read the tomes of the Obscure Library in exchange for oaths to answer calls to war by the ruling lord or lady of the city. Yet since the founding of the Dominion, no binder saved those Bestowed had ever succeeded at sending one of their bound entities further than three hundred feet from themselves. Akil was talented in the art, as befitting of his blood, and so the silver-winged hawk he’d bound as a boy he could send as far as two hundred and twelve feet without the shackle turning on him. Yet it was a rare thing for any binder to reach more than two hundred feet, and even most of those allowed to peruse the Obscure Library remained in the antechamber of that hurdle.
This mattered today, if only because soon the spirits of his binders would have to halt their advance. Ordering them to advance would remedy the issue and allow them to clear the entire field all the way to the enemy fortifications without further casualties, but it would also leave them vulnerable. Razin and the shield-bearing warriors he’d assembled would see to that vulnerability, he’d decided. It would leave his son close to the front, too, and so able to lead the assault against the same force that had humbled him at Sarcella.
At the head of his host the Malaga binders were surrounded by rings of steel, and as he had ordered forward they all went.
Marshal Juniper of the Red Shields was frowning. General Abigail’s tribune – a good Hoaring Hoof Clan boy by the look of his jaw, she’d noted with approval – cleared his throat in that way young officers always did when they had no good answer but had to answer anyway. Silver-quick, the wistful thought that Nauk truly had ruined that army down to the bone came and went.
“So she didn’t say,” the Hellhound cut in before he could reply.
Tribune Krolem sheepishly flared his teeth, and did not deny it.
“Only a thousand?” Juniper asked again, to confirm.
“Yes ma’am,” Tribune Krolem agreed.
The Marshal of Callow’s instinct was to send him back with an order for General Abigail to make a proper proposal including for what she wanted the soldiers, but she held her tongue. Catherine had raised the other woman up for a reason, and it would not be anything as simple as birth. If her warlord had simply wanted to put Callowan hands on the reins of her armies, Juniper suspected Brandon Talbot would have been the chosen candidate. Instead, though, she’d chosen an enlisted legionary who’d shot up the ranks. Not someone with ties to nobles or fame in the kingdom. Catherine had seen something in the younger woman, and though Juniper of the Red Shields did not she’d not long ago had reminder of the value of trust.
“She has them, then,” Marshal Juniper said. “See Tribune Bishara for the proper writ and be on your way.”
The boy moved quick, like she’d stung him, but Juniper had already put him out of her mind. Marshal Grem’s curious eye on her she ignored as well, her own attention now solely turned to the southern front. What was the first commander Catherine had handpicked since Juniper herself scheming, exactly?
Shit, Abigail thought, look at the writ Krolem had just handed her with a sinking feeling in her stomach. The Hellhound had actually agreed? Why would she – no, don’t panic, she told herself. This could still be salvaged if she watcher her step. On one hand, she’d actually be expected to produce results now. On the other hand, as long as she tried to pull off a vaguely coherent plan and failed she’d probably still manage to avoid the noose. Gods, Abigail knew she should have made her request more unreasonable, if she’d gone overboard the Marshal would have refused. But no, she’d just to had hedge her bets and make it look like her theoretical plan had been reasonable just to improve the chances the Black Queen wouldn’t feed her liver to buzzards after this was all over with. Her mother was right, she’d never learned to quit while she was ahead. Sure, Ma had lost an eye and a finger brawling with Annie Sutherland over who made the better beer, but just because she was a lunatic didn’t mean she was wrong. Fucking Sutherlands, anyway, strutting around like Annie having been in the Royal Guard meant she knew anything about brewing.
“She did know a thing or two about knives, though,” she conceded in a mutter.
“It is a great honour, ma’am,” Krolem, who was still there, rumbled approvingly.
“Yes,” Abigail echoed with a stiff smile. “Honour. Just the word I was thinking of.”
The Callowan general hid her rising horror with the practiced skill of someone who’d been forced to be around the Queen of Callow and pretend not to be terrified the whole time. All right, so the damned Levant magic beasties didn’t die to fire and that probably meant they wouldn’t give a damn about siege engines either. Munitions, maybe? Couldn’t really do that without using sending sappers in, which seemed ill-advised, but it was only the First Army that had the ‘spitters’, those strange devices Sapper-General Pickler used to lob munitions over long distances. Goblinfire was a restricted substance as of last year, though, so Abigail would need authorization from the Hellhound to send for any and that’d be suspicious as all Hells since Krolem had just been there. Options, she needed options.
“Where’s our Senior Sapper?” she asked Krolem.
“She’s checking in on our engines,” the tribune gravelled. “Though she asked me to pass her continued protest as to the amount of munitions we passed on to Special Tribune Robber.”
“Why?” Abigail said, feeling another spike of fear.
“His cohort isn’t part of the Third Army, it’s detached,” the orc said.
“Why did we pass munitions to Special Tribune Robber?” she clarified.
“You don’t need to test me, ma’am,” Krolem reproached. “Your signature was on the forms, the general staff is aware you planned some contingencies – just not what they are.”
Oh Gods, Abigail thought, realizing that the Black Queen’s favourite goblin assassin had forged her authorization for something involving munitions and she had absolutely no idea what. O Gods, Abigail silently repeated, turning to prayer in her hour of need, I know I’m in the service of a villain but isn’t this still a little much?
Razin Tanja crouched down to the side of the pit.
He’d return to the front of the formation soon enough, but for now he… Well, he wasn’t sure exactly what it was he was doing. There was something about this situation that felt like a stone in his boot. The Third Army had defended Sarcella with dogged viciousness, making the Dominion pay in blood for every street. They had done so even after being taken by surprise in the middle of the night after the assassination of their commanders, which while Razin still thought little of Callowan heresy had nonetheless impressed him in regard to that people’s discipline. Now that same army was facing them from a tall palisade after having days and night to prepare, and all they had prepare was a few pits with stakes at the bottom? No, he could not believe that. Certainly the fighting would harden the closer they came to the rampart, but this was too little.
It was not a complicated trap to build, Razin decided as he studied it. A stake at the bottom, the slopes inclined so anyone falling would be led towards it. Some sort of thin weave had been used to keep the hole covered, but it’d been crumpled by the claws of a bound wyvern and the weave had fallen below. That part was the most cleverly made, the heir to Malaga mused, for the weave had made the grounds look perfectly untouched until it was touched. Now the rings of shield-bearers escorting the binders were going around the revealed traps, advance slow but steady. The two sworn swords behind him were shuffling impatiently, but Razin refused to be hurried. He rose just enough to move, circling around the rim of the hole, and wrestled down the embarrassment he was starting to feel. It was a simple pit trap, and he might be making a fool of himself by insisting on taking so long a look at one.
The man’s fingers clenched. No. He would not bend so easily as that. Pride had already led him down a dead end once. If a little humiliation let him make certain there was no deeper trap then he’d suffer the bite and do so unflinchingly. The sun shining from behind him – the afternoon at his back warmed him even in his armour – gave him half a breath’s worth of warning, and that meant he survived the first blow. Coming out in a spray snow and earth from a hidden nook within the put, a howling goblin tossed something at Razin’s sworn swords while leaping up with a knife bared. The heir to Malaga caught the blade with his shield even as he tumbled backwards, the wildly cackling creature continuing to stab away as it landed on him. There was a loud crack behind them and something wet landed on Razin’s cheek. The yellow-eyed monster bared needle-like teeth and slid the knife between two armour plates, but the Levantine socked it in the mouth with an armoured fist. Wincing at the shallow wound, Razing Tanja rose even as the goblin spat out blood and laughed, reaching for something in its leather satchel.
It never got to finish the movement, for the heir to Malaga rammed the hunting knife he’d adroitly palmed through its left eye.
Back on his feet a heartbeat later, Razin grimaced when he saw the bloody mess the thrown munition had made of his two escorts from the shoulders up. Blood and bone and brain fluid stained the snow around the two corpses. Gaze turning to the rest of his command, he heard the crack of further munitions and grimly admitted to himself the Third Army of Callow had once more succeeded as springing an ambush on him.
Special Tribune Robber assessed the situation with a proud stare.
Sure, they’d been forced to come out early when one of his minions had revealed their presence before the enemy was fully past their force. On the other hand, even springing this too soon they’d gotten a full two dozen of those Dominion sorcerers. Dipping low, Robber leaned forward a bit to better slit the throat of the blinded warrior he’d caught with his brightstick. Popping out of the holes and hitting fast with munitions, his cohort had done a lot damage in the span of thirty heartbeats. But not, he mused, enough to secure a comfortable retreat. The strange spirits the Dominion mages had sent ahead to continue ripping up traps were hurrying back, and between those and the warriors recovering from the surprise two hundred goblins all spread out had no real chance of fighting their way out. He whistled, loud and clear, three times. Scatter, it meant. Smothering a grin, the Special Tribune began the run back to the tender embrace of the palisade held by the Third Army. A great day’s work, if any of them survived.
Still a good day’s work, if they didn’t.
“They won’t make it,” Krolem said.
They most definitely would not, Abigail silently agreed. Already more than twenty goblins had been slain by warriors running them down, but those had been the few whose hiding place had been within the Levantine formation. The rest has scattered to the wings with that insolent goblin aplomb, not that it would save them. They were quick, Special Tribune Robber’s sappers. Far quicker than humans on foot, especially on trickier terrain like snow. But they were not quicker than the enemy’s creatures, not even close, and with more than seventy of those left there was no doubt about the outcome of the chase. The monsters were drawing back already, closing the gap with inevitable haste. Maybe ten would make it out alive, General Abigail guessed. If that.
“Brave man, Special Tribune Robber,” her aide added, tone thick with respect.
Fuck, Abigail thought, with a fresh well of horror. The Black Queen’s favourite goblin assassin was about to get himself killed, and the only parchment trail there would be of it bore her signature. Faked, sure, but who’d ever believe that? She was going to get blamed for this wasn’t she? She was going to get blamed for this and some godsdamned buzzards were going to eat her liver. She needed to get at least that one goblin out alive. Striking with rituals again? No, wouldn’t work. They’d gotten quite good at avoiding those, and there were too many beasts anyway. Slowing down less than ten at a time wouldn’t get her anywhere. What did she have? Siege engines, which wouldn’t do anything more than the rituals, legionaries and – oh, oh. Abigail might just survive this yet.
“Still got that writ, Krolem?” she nonchalantly asked. “Send them out now.”
“Ah,” the orc breathed out, looking at her with shining eyes. “I understand now, ma’am. You’ve played the Dominion like a fiddle.”
“That is absolutely what I did,” Abigail baldly lied.
Akil Tanja’s fingers had begun clenching with the first explosion and had not loosened since. He had not anticipated that the goblins in the Black Queen’s service would burrow like worms within their own traps, and neither had his son. Malaga had lost nearly thirty binders for that mistake, men and women whose powers had each taken decades and a fortune to forge. Dead, faster than it took to drink a cup of wine. Now the wretched creatures were fleeing, but they would be run down. If any of them was taken alive, he would have the damned creatures hung from his battle-standard after personally crushing their malevolent skulls. At least Razin had drawn the enemy’s blood and asserted control swiftly, which should prevent his reputation from being tarred too much by this unpleasant turn.
“Movement by the enemy, my lord,” one of his captains announced.
The Lord of Malaga followed the man’s gaze and found the Army of Callow was opening the southern gate of the camp. Reinforcements to extricate the sappers? They would arrive too late. Akil rather hoped the enemy commander was fool enough to send legionaries forward. The spirits bound by his war-sorcerers could kill soldiers as easily as they could clear traps, and any legionary killed down on the plains was one that would not be fighting from atop the palisade. The wooden grate opened, and Akil Tanja’s lips thinned at what he saw. Horsemen, the first of the column carrying a tall banner: a bronze bell with a jagged crack going through, set on black. Lord Akil had read of these: the Order of Broken Bells, the sole remaining knightly order of Callow.
“Call them back,” the Lord of Malaga said. “Now. And hurry the skirmishers forward.”
Two of his captains peeled off like he’d swung at them with hot iron, both bearing orders. From where he sat astride his horse, Akil was forced to watch it all unfold without being able to intervene. The Callowan knights thundered out of the fortified camp without missing a stride, forming up as they advanced. There must have been at least a thousand, Akil saw with rising dread. The skirmishers were on foot, the binders and their escort too far ahead. They would not arrive soon enough. The only hope of the binders – of his son – was that the bound spirits would slow the enemy knights long enough for a retreat. Razin must have understood the point as keenly, for the bound creatures abandoned pursuit of the goblins within moments and turned sharply to the side. Facing them, the knights of the Broken Bells slowly lowered their lances and quickened from canter to full gallop. The sight of it, Akil thought, was moving. Callowan knights in their prayer-carved armours, charging a host of beasts. The Lord of Malaga tensed for the impact, eyes fixed on the lances.
He flinched in disbelief, when the knights rode through the spirits like they were mist.
Sorcery sliding off their armour like water off a duck’s back, the Knights of the Broken Bells broke through and kept charging.
There was something deeply satisfying, Abigail mused, about watching Callowan knights trample enemy foot. It scratched an itch she hadn’t known she had. The enemy mages tried other sorceries, after their nasty little trick failed, but flames and curses were nothing new to the cavalry of Kingdom of Callow. Compared to the Praesi, she thought, these Dominion folk were fumbling amateurs. The commander of the Order’s detachment had split his horse into two wedges of five hundred and rammed them straight at the enemy shield walls, shattering men and shields alike. The knights had then withdrawn in good order, after the initial momentum of the charge was spent, and formed up as they turned the enemy flank and simply charged again. The Dominion had sent two thousand foot to escort its sorcerers, but by the time General Abigail sounded the retreat for her cavalry more than half that number was lying dead on the ground. It might have been more, if enemy reinforcements hadn’t hurried. Where sorcery would fail javelins might just succeed, so reluctantly she’d pulled back the Order. Abigail was leaning against the top of the palisade with her elbows and watching the cavalry retreat in good order when she heard her tribune return.
“Special Tribune and his cohort have been settled, ma’am,” Krolem said.
She nodded absent-mindedly. The goblin she’d needed to keep alive as alive, beyond that they were hardly her concern.
“It’s about to get ugly, Tribune,” she said, gazing at the massing enemy.
The skirmishers remained spread out, but the foot behind them was now locked in thick formations. They were getting ready for a run at the palisade.
“Ma’am?” the orc said.
“Get the engines aimed,” Abigail of Summerholm grimly said. “They have a path to us mostly cleared, now they’re going to take it.”
Lord Yannu Marave patted his horse’s mane, and fondly held out his palm to feed her the last piece of bread from the loaf when she turned. He’d been told of the debacle to the south by the outriders he’d left to keep an eye on the situation, and it had darkened his mood. A few hundred warriors were a drop in the sea of what would be lost before this was all done and over with, but binders were a rare breed. They might have been of great use in the war to the north, had the Lord of Malaga’s blunder not effectively pissed away half of them. Yet there was no point in losing his temper, he knew. This was merely the first movement of an intricate dance, and his side had never been meant to win it. In the distance he watched the skirmishes of Vaccei and their Lantern guides make it to the edge of the slaughter yard, and only then raised a hand. One of the lesser horns was sounded, and the warriors came to halt. As well they should – any further and they would be in what he suspected to be the outer range of the enemy’s engines. In truth he should probably should have let them continue advancing until that suspicion was confirmed, but in the end he would rather overestimate enemy range than throw away lives on such a petty confirmation.
He had what he needed of this northern front and if any of Akil Tanja’s captains had eyes they would have what he needed of that front as well.
“I would have your judgement, Peregrine,” he calmly requested.
The Grey Pilgrim did not answer immediately. Instead the holy man gazed at the distant ring of raised stones, that incongruous crown atop a tall barrow.
“She will not step in even if the palisade is assaulted,” the Pilgrim finally said. “Perhaps not even if the camp is breached, as you had arranged.”
And so, Yannu knew, this meant the Peregrine would not intervene either. It had been made clear to the Lord of Alava what the consequences of the Grey Pilgrim acting first might be, and he would not have such disaster brought upon them all.
“Then the offensive I had planned is doomed to failure,” Yannu of the Champion’s Blood said, unruffled. “And we must resort to the second string to our bow.”
A shame. He’d enjoyed the cleverness of the scheme, the use of the Saint and the Sorcerer to take the cavalries through crumbling Arcadia and strike at the heart of the enemy camp while assault on the palisades tied down most of their troops. Yet one must now grow too fond of plans, lest they be followed even when they no longer suited. As was the case here, to his understanding. Neither the Grand Alliance nor the Black Queen wanted to risk the heavy casualties of a committed duel to death, which meant every manoeuvre on this field was in fact was a jostling for position in some greater game. One where the victor could twist the arm of the defeated without having sown too great a field of corpses first. It was Yannu Marave’s duty to help the Peregrine triumph in this struggle, nothing less or more.
“Sound the retreat for all hands,” the Lord of Alava ordered his horn-bearer.
The Peregrine looked at him strangely, as if the holy man was watching someone both a stranger and an old friend. It might truly be so, Yannu thought, if the old stories about his distant kin Lady Sintra were more than merely that.
“You will be challenged over this,” the Pilgrim said.
“I have been challenged before,” Yannu Marave said, neither boastful nor wary.
He might have to kill Akil Tanja, the Lord of Alava mused, or at least the man’s champion. The Lord of Malaga had taken enough losses today anger might lead him to such a blunder. Perhaps even a second champion would need killing, when he told the others that they would resume the attack during the night now that the safe paths to the palisade had been cleared. Ah well, these things happened. Nothing for it but swinging the blade.
Victory was born of blood, and only ever earned through it: this Yannu Marave knew true as any other child of Levant.